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Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.


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This Day in History 9/21: Benedict Arnold “Sells Out” America

HD-SN-99-01721To try to defend Benedict Arnold is a lot like being the defense lawyer at the Nuremburg trials.  Somebody has to do it, even though you know the guy’s guilty as sin.

I’m not going to sweep Arnold’s treachery under the rug–the guy did sell out the country he was defending, after all.  Yet I don’t want to paint this guy as entirely evil.  Prior to his treachery, Arnold was the most able, successful commander in the Continental Army.  Some would say he was even better than George Washington.  What Arnold did has to viewed in the lens of his times and compared to other “traitors” of the Revolution–people who’s acts do not seem that treasonous today.

Here’s the Law and Order, CSI-esque lowdown of what happened.  Since the spring of 1779, Arnold was in communication with the British forces of Sir Henry Clinton about offering his services to the Crown.  The strategic chokepoint of West Point, NY was about to be given to Arnold to command.  He gained command of the fortress on August 3, 1780, and received the offer he was negotiating for a year: the British were offering  £20,000 in exchange for the fortress.   The deal was sealed with Arnold meeting Major John Andre on Sept. 21.  However, Andre was captured two days later and the plot unraveled.  Arnold managed to slip to the British lines–even getting Washington’s permission to allow his mistress safe passage to England.  Andre was tried and hanged as a spy.  America develops a new definition for a two-timing, snake-in-the-grass son-of-a-bitch.

There’s no doubt that Arnold’s actions were a complete dick move.  West Point was the strategic point in the Hudson that opened it to Lake George, then Lake Champlain and into Canada, where British reinforcements were waiting.  His motives, too, seem to denote the whiff of an insufferable asshole.  He was pissed at being passed over for commands, and he spent his dough like a rapper at the Source Awards, which got him deep in the hole.  Yet does Arnold deserve his eternal shitpile?

Yes, but with a little less shit than was piled on before.  Also, the shit has to spread to other people.  I’m sorry, George, but you should’ve seen this coming.

The biggest charge is that Arnold committed treason against the country he defended, even suffering wounds in the service.  While I don’t doubt his brilliant service prior to the West Point affair–his actions in Saratoga saved the Revolution, for Christ’s sake–I do question his patriotism, or his commitment to the cause.  In my opinion, Arnold was never a real patriot, but rather a voraciously ambitious opportunist. 

Arnold, being a good Connecticut boy, made his living at the mercantile trade.  He made a pretty good living up until the crises of the 1760s, the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.  Arnold continued to smuggle goods in defiance of the act, even attending local Sons of Liberty meetings.  Yet it’s hard to see this as more than self-serving: Arnold was hurt in his pockets, and his subsequent actions in the Continental Army bear out his monetary concerns. 

His military career was a quest for glory–not for liberty.  He took on daring assignments to boost his resume.  Taking Fort Ticonderoga without a shot and engineering a brilliant retreat from a failed Canadian invasion in 1776 definitely add to Arnold’s skill set. 

Then came his big project, Saratoga, a job he lobbied for relentlessly.  Washington went with Horatio Gates, against the wishes of Arnold and others who saw Gates as a British-trained sissy.  The battle bore this out: Gates was playing safe with a fortified position against British, Canadian and German mercenary forces.   Arnold defied Gates by leading a headlong charge into the British lines with three regiments at a dead run, a bold move that broke the lines and bust open a gap to the Canadian and German reinforcements.  The lobsterbacks didn’t have a chance: John Burgoyne and the entire northern British army surrenders to Gates. 

So why the beef with the Continentals?  Money and glory.  Arnold was constantly getting passed over for promotions he felt he deserved–including Saratoga, which he actually did deserve.  Furthermore, he was owed money from the Continental Congress since his expeditions were paid mostly out of his own pocket–but many of the generals did the same thing, including Washington.  It also didn’t help that as military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he lived high on the hog and took on a high-maintenance mistress with Loyalist sympathies. 

If Arnold was a true patriot from the beginning, I could see the treason much clearer.  The fact is, the military victories blinded the Continental commanders to Arnold’s clear personality flaws.  He was an overachieving prick with a lust for money and power.  No one should have given him command of a pisspot, let alone West Point.  Since the 1760s, his quest was for personal fame and fortune, and he showed absolutely no inclination that the patriot cause meshed with his own philosophy.

Arnold was not the only traitor with a need for cash.  Benjamin Church was the doctor for the Massachusetts militia, later the Continental army, during the opening months of the Revolution in 1775.  During that time, and also to get out of a hole, he was sending secret information to British general Thomas Gage, including troop movements.  He was caught and managed to slip on a ship, never to be seen again. 

Robert Rogers, an American ranger who served brilliantly during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763, offered his services to the Continentals.  It didn’t help that the Congress offered him a commission and was rebuffed, stating that he was a British officer.  His drinking didn’t help, either.  Washington had him arrested rather than risk his person causing havoc.  Rogers would subsequently raise a gang of loyalist guerrillas that would capture American spy Nathan Hale in 1776, obstentsibly by pretending that Rogers was a patriot spy, too.  Even today, the US Army names its pioneer divisions Rangers, after Rogers, who worked against the Americans.

So it’s probably best to cut Arnold some slack, but not a whole lot.  His treachery succeeded not because of some inherent feeling of loyalty to Great Britain, but because the people around him could not see the amoral nature of his actions.  He was but one of many American turncoats in the Revolutionary period, and most of them were turncoats for reasons far more reasoned than Arnold.

In short, Arnold’s story teaches us that it’s good to tolerate a bastard if he’s an earner.  If he gets a little grabby, though, it’s time to cut him loose.

George Washington’s kicking himself right now.

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